Celebrity Politics and the Politics of Celebrities in the Philippines

by Dr. Jean Encinas-Franco

If latest pronouncements from presidential sister Kris Aquino are to be believed, she may yet be another celebrity to reckon with in 2016, at least as far as Tarlac politics is concerned. Her joining the political arena is a milestone if only because it finally blurs the line between politics and showbusiness. That is, if you are one of those who believe that the two worlds are and should be distinct. Aside from her pedigree and her much talked about clout in show business, Kris personifies the best of both worlds. She knows how to use her political skills and connection in building a stellar career even as she likewise adeptly uses her celebrity power in rewarding political allies. Everytime there is trouble in Kris’ world, and well even in her endorsements, her masterful use of the narrative of  her parents’ political ‘sacrifice’ is unparalled.  And who would ever forget her tearful eulogy to Cory Aquino? Anchored on the frame of a redemptive daughter, her speech surely drew tears even from skeptics and non-fans. But this was just a backdrop to what she suddenly announced in the midst of a nation in mourning–that it was up to her and her brother to continue her parents’ legacy. Right there and then, I knew there was another death that followed Cory’s. It was Mar Roxas’ presidential aim. When explaining to my students the weakness of our country’s political parties I always tell them that it was not the Liberal Party that launched Pnoy’s candidacy. It was her sister in a black dress, inside the Manila Cathedral in August 2009.

‘Celebrity politics’ or the case of film and television stars, broadcasters, and sports personalities who run for public office, is not new. Rogelio dela Rosa, the 1950s matinee idol, was the first film star to become a senator in 1958. Eddie Ilarde, a radio broadcaster, followed him to the Senate in 1970.  But it was not until 1987 when congressional elections were first held under the new Constitution, that ‘celebrity politics’ became more pronounced. The reason was that Joseph Estrada, the long-time mayor of San Juan and a popular movie star-producer, made it to the Senate. The elite and the middle class were scandalized over Erap’s victory. Their fear was that the Senate as the traditional staging ground for the presidency,  may well catapult Erap into the highest office in the land—which he did more than a decade after. However, his supporters and handlers argued that he did well as a small-town mayor for many years and as such had enough ‘practice’ and preparation. But more than this, it was the fact that Erap, a highschool drop-out would now occupy the seat once held by illustrious names (i.e. Claro M. Recto, Jose Diokno) with bar topnotcher credentials to boot. Some said, it was ‘shameful’  or ‘anung gagawin niya dyan,’. Little did they know that in 1992, the second elections after EDSA, another batch of celebrities would follow. Vicente Sotto III, host of a popular noontime show, topped the senatorial race, followed by Ramon Revilla, an action star famous for his agimat. Together, they were pilloried by the media, labelled as ‘clowns’ and accused of being in the ‘committee of silence’. Since then and today, several celebrities have tried and succeeded (though some did not) in carving a niche in formal politics both at the national and local levels. Among those who are currently in office are Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla, Jr. and Lito Lapid in the Senate. Vilma Santos-Recto was mayor and now governor of Batangas. Aga Muhlach of Bagets fame, is having his baptism of fire in local politics in Bicol. Indeed, politics is more fun in the Philippines.

But the question often asked is why do people vote for them or why do they run in the first place? From a rational perspective, they run because their calculation tells them they will win probably with minimal cost because of their popularity. It may also be considered good career shift for some who may no longer want to be as active in the movies. From the other end, people want them in office because in their minds, they can provide them with what traditional politicians promised but never delivered. Television and films are more powerful conveyors of ‘dreams’  than any leaflet or paid political advertisement. This is why we currently have celebrities paid to endorse candidates. This is also why in the 2010 elections, the electorate believed that it was Erap who will ‘end poverty’ and not Manny Villar.

Despite its prominence in post-EDSA politics, celebrity politics at least in the Philippines, is a relatively underexamined terrain from an academic perspective. Much have been written about it especially from sectors who think celebrities do not have a place in elective office. However, little is known in terms of empirical research as to the why’s and how’s of this phenomenon. Some have argued that the popularity of television as a medium, weak political parties and the electoral system itself which privileges personality rather than substance are the culprit. These are valid arguments. But to my mind, it is not only the popularity of television that catapulted these people to the heights of politics. It is also the content of post-EDSA news that forever changed the way Filipinos would look at celebrities. In pre-1986 news programs, there was a definitive dichotomy between the so-called hard news and showbusiness news. If one likes to watch the former, he or she was left with a stoic Harry Gasser delivering the news in straight English. But if someone thrives on the latest celebrity gossip, Inday Badiday was the name to beat. This neat dividing line suddenly lost its allure in post-1986 news programming. Not only is Filipino currently the medium with which news is delivered, celebrity news is now wedded within primetime news. Nowhere is this more apparent and potent than in the current set-up of Bandlila—where Boy Abunda, Inday Badiday’s heir apparent, can be found sitting side by side with readers of serious news. This has far-reaching consequences for how celebrity news is appreciated. First, it means that you must be from Mars if you are not at the very least vaguely familiar with the latest celebrity happenings. Second, the current set-up suggests that serious news and celebrity gossips are now equal in terms of prominence. One of my colleagues even argued that this ‘celebrification’ also extends to the manner in which non-celebrity politicians are covered, such as for instance, in the way the President’s lovelife is relentlessly monitored.

Another development that I have observed is that news program nowadays no longer just deliver the news. They are also active participants in delivering public services via their network’s foundations. This means that broadcasters become ‘the story’ in some instances (i.e. calamities ) rather than the one delivering it. It is no wonder why name recall came very easy for Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda.

The bottomline for me is, I am not about to join those who believe these celebrities should not run. To my mind, they have as much right to run as it is the right of every person to vote for them. No, I am not about to endorse any celebrity. Indeed, it is fearful to think that a person in power does not possess the qualifications we aspire for in a leader. But we can overcome this fear if we allow ourselves to think that qualifications alone do not necessarily make a politician (both celebrity and non-celebrity) more responsive. Structural factors such as civil society vigilance and the quality of their technical staff are important. For legislators, legislative-executive relations and intra-chamber politics and leadership are also crucial if one wants a bill passed amidst the competitive legislative mill. What I am arguing is that,  instead of pouring our energies in being ‘ashamed’ of our celebrity politicians, let us engage in active citizenship rather than be mere spectators to our politicians. Let us not leave governing to politicians alone. Bantayan natin sila. In other words, let us make democracy work for us rather than against us.

Jean Encinas-Franco, PhD is Assistant Professor of Political Science in UP Diliman. Her research interests include Politics of International Migration and Gender and Politics.

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